The Toxic Sludge in America’s Soul: The Tragedy of Systemic Racism

Ted Grimsrud—November 6, 2020

As I write this, Joe Biden nears the number of electoral votes needed to become President of the US.  Donald Trump is fighting all out to prevent that outcome, but at this point seems most likely to fall short. However, enough people did vote for Trump—millions more than in 2016—that the contest is close enough that the possibility of Trump’s success can’t be ignored. Something that troubles me deeply is the question of how the election could have been this close.

I suspect that to answer that question will require, among other things, a deepened awareness of American history. How is it that we have an electorate that would offer so much support for a vicious, incompetent, narcissistic individual whose most remarkable feature might be his utter lack of redeemable characteristics? There is literally nothing to like about Trump—no compassion, no empathy, no sense of humor, no insightfulness, no loyalty, no sincerity, no generosity, and nothing else that is attractive on a human level. Trump gained and sustained power by appealing to the worst aspects of this country’s character and ruthlessly exploiting the many weaknesses of its political system.

The Civil War, white supremacy, and their toxic legacy

As I have been studying the American Civil War and the “peculiar institution” (slavery) that triggered it—and the on-going legacy of both that war and its context of white supremacy—I have been impressed with a sense of this large chunk of the nation that has been resolutely opposed to recognizing the humanity of the people forcibly enslaved and exploited and their descendants. The persistence of that opposition is breathtaking once one notices it—and may in significant ways help explain our country’s current political brokenness.

I gained some insights from a book I recently read by Carol Anderson, a historian at Emory University, called White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Political Divide. I don’t particularly like the title, but there is very little else about the book that I am critical of. It’s a concise, highly readable, and actually quite level-toned summary of the persistent and largely successful ways that the United States as a society has refused to give more than a few inches to the efforts of many over the years to create a more just society. It tells the story of how the US has refused to implement the promise of a nation with liberty and justice for all.

As I read this book, I thought of our current situation where about 48% of voting Americans supported our current president, seemingly regardless of how cruel, destructive, and inept his leadership might be. The reading I have been doing lately related to 19th century America, especially focused on the lead-up to the Civil War, the war itself, and its aftermath, leaves me with a strong sense of a deep-seated intractability of white supremacy regardless of how cruel and destructive it might be. Anderson’s book provides a kind of bridge account, showing how the toxic sludge of 19th century Slave Power never went away.

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